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May 1, 2021, 10:38 AM

Anti-police climate and rhetoric blamed in part for rising line-of-duty death toll

By Mike Brest, Breaking News Reporter

“I would like you to know that even together with his sacrifice, he’s nonetheless a hero for somebody,” said Delmar Police Chief Ivan Barkley. “Corporal Keith Heacook’s household graciously determined to donate his organs.”

Heacook's death was part of an especially traumatic week for officers across the country.

Sgt. Chris Ward and Deputy Sheriff Logan Fox were killed during a 13-hour standoff near Boone, North Carolina, on Wednesday. They had come to the aid of the mother and stepfather of Isaac Alton Barnes, who had barricaded himself in a home 100 miles northwest of Charlotte and shot the officers before killing himself.

Two days earlier, New York Police Department Officer Anastasios Tsakos was killed by a drunk driver who had bashed law enforcement that night in a Facebook post.

The 2021 toll includes 19 law enforcement officers who have been shot to death, two who were stabbed, and at least 15 who were hit by cars. It also includes law enforcement officers from a wide range of agencies, including police, corrections, and federal agencies, including Customs and Border Protection.

While police officers sign up for danger when they put on the badge, the recent anti-police climate spurred by racially divisive cases of officers killing civilians under varying circumstances has made the job even more perilous, say New York Police Benevolent Association leader Patrick Lynch and other law enforcement advocates.

Activists and even politicians have called for defunding police departments, limiting police officers' ability to perform their duties, and often demonizing all police officers for the actions of a few.

"This is the violent behavior that their anti-police rhetoric has inspired," Lynch said after a driver in New York City splashed an officer with a caustic chemical and then hurled a lit Molotov cocktail at another officer after being pulled over. “Until politicians stop encouraging hatred and violence towards police officers, we must be prepared to face such attacks at all times, both on duty and off duty.”

Law enforcement supporters trace much of the anti-police rhetoric to the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, at the hands of then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Although Chauvin was quickly charged and later convicted of murder, and faces up to 40 years in prison, the case touched off protests and rioting in cities across the country.

In the months since Floyd died, several other high-profile cases have seen police officers kill several black people, including Daunte Wright, Andrew Brown, and Ma'Khia Bryant.

A Delaware police officer who was beaten to death this week after coming to the aid of an elderly couple is continuing to save lives even after becoming a statistic in what is shaping up to be another deadly year for the nation's law enforcement officers.

Delmar Police Cpl. Keith Heacook, who was attacked by a career criminal early Sunday, was declared dead Wednesday but was kept on life support until his organs could be harvested. He was the 119th law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty in 2021, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

While angry mobs have seized on each incident, rallying to the acronym "ACAB" for "all cops are bastards," law enforcement advocates say that lethal use-of-force incidents are rare, often justified, and never the same.

In Wright's case, a veteran Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, officer apparently mistook her service gun for her Taser. In the case of Bryant, a Columbus, Ohio, officer shot the 16-year-old girl as she swung a kitchen knife at a woman (potentially stopping a killing) in a scene caught on video. Details of the Brown case are still unclear as a judge has so far declined to release body camera video footage to the public. But prosecutors said Brown, who had a long arrest history, was driving his car at the police when he was shot.

"Law enforcement officers are not superheroes with superpowers," said Patrick Yoes, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. "We are not flawless, nor are we heartless. We are ordinary people who answered a higher calling to serve and protect our communities. At times, we are called upon to do extraordinary things under the most stressful and chaotic situations."

"Those who demonize police do so at a cost. They are making our communities and our jobs less safe," he added.

Police officers are also at risk from an unseen enemy that can be every bit as deadly as any suspect. In 2021, 63 died from the coronavirus. In 2020, some 362 law enforcement officers died in the line of duty, including 234 from COVID-19 and 45 who were shot to death by criminals, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Driven largely by the coronavirus pandemic, it was the deadliest year for law enforcement officers since at least 1974.

"I think it's important to recognize some of the unique dangers that police officers are facing," said social sciences Professor Mark Singer of Case Western Reserve University, citing a report on COVID-19's effects on police departments from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. "They want to come home from work from a dangerous job and be safe."